The Debate

Now is Not the Time to Back Down in the South China Sea

Recent Features

The Debate

Now is Not the Time to Back Down in the South China Sea

Realpolitik cannot triumph over Moralpolitik.

Now is Not the Time to Back Down in the South China Sea
Credit: U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Anthony J. Rivera/Released

On April 22, Chinese maritime researchers proposed a new boundary in the South China Sea (SCS) that they say will help the study of natural science, while adding weight to Beijing’s claims over the disputed waters and preparing for possible future changes in its SCS policy. A week prior, People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) vessels reportedly challenged Australian naval ships as they transited the strategic waterway toward Vietnam. On March 23, a U.S. Navy vessel purportedly conducted a freedom of navigation operation (FONOP) in the contested waters. Following the FONOP, China coincidentally carried out combat naval exercises and claimed to have deploy additional troops to and set up territorial defense equipment in the Spratly archipelago.

Altogether, the forceful moves underscore a calculated campaign by Beijing to determinedly reassert and preserve respectively its perceived sovereignty and territorial integrity in the SCS through words and deeds. If so, the testimony of Admiral Phil Davidson – the newly confirmed U.S. Pacific Commander – to the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee may be more noteworthy in terms of its alarming content, context, and tone. He asserted that Beijing has built up enough military infrastructure in the SCS to completely control the disputed waterway.

Beijing believes that its sharp and emphatic “grey zone” operations and activities will once again compel Washington to back down in the SCS. Washington did little when Beijing illegally seized Scarborough Shoal in 2012; brazenly reclaimed over 3,200 acres of land over the next five years despite a 2002 agreement with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) not to change any geographic features in the SCS; broke the 2015 agreement between Xi Jinping and Barack Obama to not militarize these Chinese-occupied geographic features; and blatantly disregarded the landmark ruling by the International Tribunal of the Permanent Court of Arbitration in 2016.

All told, years of American acquiescence and accommodation (unintentionally) may have eroded the international rule of law and global norms; diminished the regional trust and confidence in U.S. preeminence, presence, and constancy; weakened some of the U.S. regional alliances and partnerships; undermined Washington’s traditional role as the guarantor of the global economy and provider of regional security, stability, and leadership; and perhaps even emboldened Beijing to expand its global power and influence and accelerate the pace of its deliberate march toward regional preeminence and ultimately global preeminence. So, as to not further give ground to Beijing in the strategic waterway, Washington cannot back down “now” in the SCS and give grist to the ongoing campaign which asserts“America is not going to rescue the other (SCS) claimants from perceived intimidation and coercion… The realization that the United States will not be coming to the rescue is belatedly beginning to sink in throughout the region and misplaced hope is being replaced by bitter disappointment and even despair.”*

At the end of the day, it is much easier to slow or stop a large boulder rolling down a steep hill near the top than wait until it gains speed and momentum near the bottom.

On April 22, the South China Morning Post reported that Chinese maritime researchers are proposing to replace China’s vague nine-dash line claim with a more precise continuous line claim on the basis that the former can no longer meet the increasing demands of Chinese activities and interests in the SCS. The vast area outlined by the continuous line overlaps the dash line and fills in the gaps. It includes all the contested waters, such as the Paracel Islands, Spratly Islands, James Shoal, and Scarborough Shoal. Within the new boundary, Beijing would claim the right to activities ranging from fishing and mining for energy or mineral resources to the construction of military bases with other countries’ access to these rights open for discussion. All in all, the proposed new boundary (possible trial balloon like previous “Four Shas” claim) is not too surprising; and is yet another representative exemplification – like “near-Arctic state and the SCS has been part of China since ancient times” – of how China incrementally and quietly builds concepts, principles, vocabulary, and finally justification for pursuing its national interests and global ambitions.

On April 15, HMAS Anzac (FFH-150), HMAS Toowoomba (FFH-156), and HMAS Success (OR-304) were reportedly challenged by PLAN vessels while enroute to a port visit in Vietnam. The Australian Defense Department provided the following statement: “The Australian Defense Force has maintained a robust program of international engagement with countries in and around the SCS for decades…this includes bilateral and multilateral military exercises, port visits, maritime surveillance operations, and ship transits.”

In a response statement, China’s Ministry of National Defense downplayed the challenge and stated: “The reports from Australia did not accord with the facts…Chinese side used professional language to communicate with the Australian side, and their operations were lawful, in compliance, professional, and safe.” Additionally, a Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) spokesperson in a press briefing added: “If the Australian side refers to the normal FON according to international law, there is no problem with it. If the Australian side has other calculations, we hope that it can see that the situation in the SCS now is stabilizing and improving and join hands with China and other regional countries to uphold the peace and stability in the SCS and inject more positive energy into this region.”

On March 23, USS Mustin (DDG-89) purportedly conducted a FONOP during which it supposedly passed within 12 nm of Mischief Reef – one of seven occupied geographic features in the Spratly archipelago that China has transformed into a large military outpost in a bid to dominate the contested surrounding waters. This may have been the second U.S. FONOP of the year and the sixth U.S. naval operations in the last 10 months to challenge Beijing’s excessive maritime claims in the SCS. The FONOP was bookended by the USS Carl Vinson (CVN-70) port visit to Da Nang, Vietnam in early March and the USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN-71) Carrier Strike Group operations in the SCS in early April.  

The Chinese MFA responded the very next day with mostly the same recycled talking points from past U.S. FONOPs, but with some noteworthy additions and in a noticeably more assertive and harsher tone. The notable extras were remarks characterizing the United States as an uninvited and destabilizing interloper to the region and ASEAN interests; and statements warning Washington that FONOPs and the increased naval presence in the SCS may no longer be tolerated as evidenced by assertive language more forceful than in the past – “take all necessary measures to defend its national sovereignty and security” vice the previous softer language of “take necessary measures to firmly safeguard its sovereignty.” The new language and tone is in step with Xi Jinping’s policy remarks on sovereignty and territorial integrity at the 13th National People’s Congress – “The Chinese people and the Chinese nation have a shared conviction: not one single inch of our land will be or can be seceded from China.    

The first add-on was intended for the other ASEAN members, shaping and influencing the ongoing negotiations of the Code of Conduct (CoC) for the management of contested claims in the strategic waterway. Beijing will undoubtedly try to insert favorable language into the CoC, like excluding non-ASEAN states from the SCS and regulating military activities in the SCS. The latter is consistent with Chinese comments made at the 54th Munich Security Conference – “the problem now is that some countries unilaterally and wrongly interpreted the freedom of navigation of UNCLOS as the freedom of military operations, which is not the principle set by the UNCLOS.” The second add-on was meant for Washington, signaling Beijing’s intent to challenge more the increased American naval presence and operations in their perceived home waters.

Following the FONOP, China announced and carried out combat naval exercises in the disputed waters to include a large-scale show-of-force demonstration; and then stated that it may conduct similar monthly combat drills in the future. Beijing characterized these combat drills as routine, part of the PLAN’s annual training plan to hone combat capability, and not aimed at any specific country or target. Besides the naval maneuvers, China also claimed to have deploy additional troops and set up territorial defense equipment; and justified the opportunistic deployment as Beijing having every right to deploy necessary military equipment on its military outposts in the Spratly archipelago.

On April 2, the Global Times published an op-ed expounding additional geo-political motives for the naval maneuvers. The expansive reasons included Chinese needs to safeguard its national interests in the region; Chinese response to the evolving international situation as some countries have made moves that strategically target China; the changing Taiwan situation with the recently signed Taiwan Travel Act into U.S. law; and Chinese warfighting imperative to do more naval drills to test and improve military combat capability and capacity. Normal actions of any country that wants to develop its military power. 

On April 12, Xi personally attended a naval review in the SCS, one of the largest of its kind in China since its founding in 1949. He viewed 48 vessels, 76 aircraft, and more than 10,000 service personnel to include the aircraft carrier Liaoning. Xi made a speech after the review, reaffirming Beijing’s aspiration to have a strong navy and pledging to speed up PLAN modernization…“A mighty navy is an important pillar of the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.” This is because having a capable navy doesn’t simply protect one’s shores, but also to protect one’s interests beyond those shores.

Hence, now is not the time for Washington to back down in the SCS. To do so would further embolden Beijing to expand and accelerate its deliberate campaign to control the disputed and contested strategic waterway through which trillions of dollars of global trade flows each year; and reinforce Beijing’s growing belief in itself as a rising power and Washington as a declining power that can be intimidated out of the SCS and perhaps eventually the greater Indo-Pacific in accordance with its grand strategic design for national rejuvenation (Chinese Dream). For Beijing, controlling the SCS is step toward regional preeminence and ultimately global preeminence.      

*Mark J. Valencia, author of the quoted article, responded with the following statement: “I — and my views — are not part of an ‘ongoing campaign.’ These are my views — and mine alone — arrived at through logical analysis.”

Tuan N. Pham serves on the executive committee of the Yokosuka Council on Asia-Pacific Studies, and is widely published in national security affairs and international relations. The views expressed therein are his own and do not reflect the official policy or position of the U.S. Government.